*I received a free copy of this book, with thanks to the author and Henry Roi at Odyssey Books. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: “The night before Esther’s ship was due to dock, her sister dreamed of her.”
Auckland at the turn of the century. A city on the cusp of change. Isobel, a settler of ten years, waits for her sister to cross the ocean to join her. Separated by distance, disappointments and secrets, the women reunite in a land where the rules of home do not apply. Women push for the vote and the land offers opportunity and a future for those brave enough to take it. But some secrets run too deep, some changes too shocking to embrace. Against this backdrop of uncertainty and promise, Isobel and Esther have to determine what – and who – means most.
In this novel, Rebecca Burns returns to the colonial New Zealand explored in her short story collection, The Settling Earth. Beyond the Bay is a novel of hope, redemption, and the unbreakable bond of family.
Beyond the Bay is an immersive historical novel following two sisters as they try to make new lives in New Zealand.
Most of the story is told from the perspective of Isobel, who moved to New Zealand with her husband and has been lying to her family at home ever since. When her sister, Esther, finally comes to visit it turns out that she has been keeping secrets of her own, and the sisters have to face their changed relationship and the harsh reality of being a woman in an unforgiving landscape.
The story explores womanhood and feminism from a number of different perspectives – most notably the impending decision about women’s suffrage – and offers no judgements or condemnation. Rebecca Burns has captured the true sisterly solidarity that can come about not just between siblings, but between women facing their different battles side-by-side, with understanding and compassion.
As the story moves between the ‘current’ time of the story and flashbacks to the women’s lives growing up in the UK, the author presents the importance of memory to our identity in the present and our decisions about the future. There is an obvious dichotomy between the golden carefree days of their childhoods and the rough life in a one room shanty as emigrants, and yet it is clear that freedom and comfort weigh differently when it comes to the path we choose to follow.
There are some triggering points in the story, related to domestic and sexual violence, which are handled sensitively (no dwelling on the intimate details) and yet with a raw honesty that is painful to read. The same can be said for every personal, intimate detail of the lives of these two very different, equally strong women.
I was fully immersed in this book from beginning to end; the bleak landscape, hard living, stark emotions and soft hopes all lived and breathed through the pages along with the characters we followed. I was left with the lingering sense of those hopes, and the strong impression of loyalty to family, love, womanhood, sisterhood.
A horn from a ship somewhere, and Isobel jumped, jolting loose unexpected tears. Rain fell, she passed a hand over her face, and suddenly Esther was in front of her. At least, Isobel thought it was Esther; the woman had the shocking red hair of her sister and her features were arranged in the same fashion. But Esther had been a girl of eleven when they’d parted—she’d worn a pinafore and a scowl back then. The woman on the dockside seemed to have stepped into the child’s skin and thickened her blood. But the way Esther held her fingers to her lips, pinning her mouth closed—she was the Esther that Isobel remembered. She looked, transfixed, as the woman on the quayside pinched her face, and Isobel was back—back in the parlour, in the house on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and Esther was holding herself in, holding back insults for their mother. On the Auckland quayside, Isobel needed to see Esther’s mouth. The urge was sudden and frightening. She reached out and touched the woman she had not touched in ten years, folding her sister’s rigid bones into her own cupped hand, seeing Esther’s mouth, the gnawed lips, and then the women were crying freely, not caring who on Queen Street saw them.
– Rebecca Burns, Beyond the Bay